The Magazine

The Brandeis Effect

Close study leads to deep admiration for the justice.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By G. EDWARD WHITE
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Louis D. Brandeis

A Life

by Melvin I. Urofsky

Pantheon, 976 pp., $40

Melvin Urofsky's new biography of Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis is the best one-volume life of Brandeis yet to appear. It far surpasses Alpheus Mason's Brandeis: A Free Man's Life (1946), and it is more comprehensive, though somewhat less acute, than Philippa Strum's Louis D. Brandeis (1984). It seems likely to be the starting place for information on Brandeis for a long time. Urofsky's previous research and writing on Brandeis had been competent and extensive, and this book is a fitting capstone.

Yet Urofsky's book, for all its comprehensiveness, erudition, and abiding sympathy for his subject, just misses as a first-rate judicial biography. It neither fully captures Brandeis as a thinker nor sufficiently clarifies his body of judicial work. Stephen Baskerville's Of Laws and Limitations remains the best intellectual portrait of Brandeis, and the best treatment of his career on the Supreme Court lies in scattered places.

"A great man," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said of Chief Justice John Marshall, "represents a great ganglion in the nerves of society." Holmes was using "ganglion" in a cosmic sense. One could apply the term to Brandeis in a different way. He was the ganglion of a social and intellectual network. The time frame of the network stretched back from Brandeis, born in Louisville in 1856, to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose Faust (1808) and Poetry and Truth from My Own Life (1811-1833) had been read and admired by both Brandeis's maternal grandmother and his mother, cultured Bohemian Jews from Prague. Brandeis regarded Goethe as his intellectual hero, and was still reading and quoting him in his eighties (he died at 85 in 1941).

The network stretched forward to six of Brandeis's many famous law clerks, Dean Acheson, Judge Henry Friendly, and the academics Louis Jaffe, Paul Freund, Willard Hurst, and David Riesman, the last survivor of whom died in 2002. Also included in the network were Holmes himself, born 15 years before Brandeis, and the ubiquitous Felix Frankfurter (born in 1882), who was nominated to fill Brandeis's seat on the Supreme Court in 1939. Holmes was Brandeis's most intimate friend on the Court--the two served together from 1916 to 1931--and Frankfurter was Brandeis's most intimate professional friend outside the Court, as aptly illustrated by Urofsky's publication of conversations between Brandeis and Frankfurter over a 25-year period.

The ganglion metaphor is appropriate for Brandeis not just because he was the nucleus of a group of famous writers and lawyers. Unlike Goethe, or Holmes, or many of the lesser known persons just identified, Brandeis was primarily a doer, not a sophisticated thinker or gifted writer. His greatest influence came from his ability to shape public policy and influence the actions of others. To be sure, he wrote two books and numerous influential opinions. But he was, above all, a legal and judicial strategist.

These last comments should not be understood as implying that Brandeis was deficient in talent. On the contrary, one of the central themes of Brandeis's life and career is his remarkable intellectual and professional talents. By any standard, LDB was one of the most gifted lawyers and judges in American history.

Le juge formidable. Brandeis was born in the United States to a sophisticated and wealthy Jewish family, and nurtured in an ethnic enclave that stressed education, travel, and intellectual exchange between men and women. He first attended German-, then English-speaking public schools in Louisville, which had a critical mass of Bohemian Jews at a time (the 1870s) when anti-Semitism had not widely taken root in America. He received the highest possible grades in his schooling, was apparently never a disciplinary problem, and enjoyed an active physical life. He traveled widely within the United States during his childhood, then accompanied his family to Vienna in 1872 and stayed on to attend the Annen Realschule, a private German academy in Dresden from which he graduated in 1875 with comparatively high marks, considering that all his courses were in German, not the primary language of his Louisville childhood.